US Citizen Hopefuls Halted By Virus Want Oaths Fast-Tracked

By Matthew Santoni
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Law360 (June 11, 2020, 4:32 PM EDT) -- Immigrants whose U.S. citizenship has been delayed indefinitely by the COVID-19 pandemic have filed a proposed class action asking a Pennsylvania federal court to fast-track their naturalization and help the government clear a backlog of applicants.

According to the complaint and motion for class certification filed with the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia Wednesday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Philadelphia field office had responded to the coronavirus pandemic by suspending weekly ceremonies where hundreds of immigrants took the final oaths that made them U.S. citizens, and had only started scheduling a few at a time starting in June.

"While the initial delay was both understandable and necessary, it has now left hundreds of individuals under the jurisdiction of USCIS's Philadelphia field office without the benefits and privileges of U.S. citizenship," the motion for class certification said. "Moreover, further delay is unnecessary; Congress has provided tools to address this precise situation, empowering both this Court and USCIS to provide for expedited naturalization."

The suit seeks to represent a proposed class of all individuals working with the Philadelphia USCIS office whose scheduled oath ceremony had been canceled or not scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and whose swearing-in had not been rescheduled any sooner than Sept. 28.

Typically, applicants for U.S. citizenship go through background checks and interviews with USCIS, and if they pass, they become citizens through a naturalization ceremony where applicants publicly swear an oath of allegiance to the United States. Before the pandemic, the Philadelphia office usually conducted up to four ceremonies per week, the lawsuit said.

But with the emergency declarations that followed the coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. and Pennsylvania,  large public gatherings such as the naturalization ceremonies were canceled as of March 18.

"Following USCIS's shutdown, hundreds of individuals with approved naturalization applications were unable to naturalize. In some cases, the Philadelphia Field Office sent notices to individuals who had been interviewed and approved for naturalization canceling their oath ceremonies — the final required step to become a citizen," the certification motion said. "As a result, hundreds of individuals within the jurisdiction of USCIS' Philadelphia Field Office now form part of a backlog of individuals requiring only a naturalization ceremony to become a U.S. citizen."

The office restarted oath ceremonies on June 4, the suit said, but was only handling a few people at a time in order to avoid the large, close crowds where the coronavirus can spread, the suit said. As a result, the limited resumption of naturalizations alone was unlikely to clear the backlog that built up during the shutdown, the lawsuit said.

According to the suit, Congress allowed USCIS to fast-track naturalization oaths under special circumstances, take them "administratively" without a large public ceremony or skip the ceremonies entirely, and argued that the COVID-19 pandemic was a special circumstance.

"Statutory tools exist to resolve this crisis. Specifically, Congress provided a mechanism to permit individuals who are on the brink of obtaining U.S. citizenship but face special circumstances to obtain an expedited administration of the oath of allegiance to complete the naturalization process," the class certification motion said. "An expedited administrative naturalization could entail conducting virtual oath ceremonies remotely, administering the oath telephonically, providing final approval based on the oath of allegiance taken at the naturalization interview, or scheduling individual oath ceremonies in accordance with state safety measures. The grave public health threat posed by COVID-19 constitutes special circumstances warranting use of this unique procedure."

Delays in obtaining citizenship locked waiting applicants out of public benefits they could need during the pandemic or could prevent them from voting in elections, the suit said.

The suit included two proposed lead plaintiffs who were permanent legal residents awaiting their final oaths: Maria Campbell Davis, a Jamaican immigrant who had been scheduled for a ceremony March 19, and Abdel Wahab Alaussos, a Syrian immigrant whose final ceremony had not yet been scheduled.

Although the attorneys for the proposed class did not have any exact number of potential members, they estimated that the numerosity requirement for class certification would be satisfied because the Philadelphia USCIS office had previously been administering oaths to about 420 people per week.

"Given the volume of cases being approved in the weeks prior to the COVID-19 shutdown and the fact that ceremonies often were scheduled weeks or longer in advance, it is reasonable to estimate that a backlog of hundreds of individuals has developed," the class certification motion said. "As a result, at a minimum, the proposed class consists of hundreds of lawful permanent residents awaiting to become U.S. citizens."

Since Campbell Davis and Alaussos had similar circumstances and claims to the rest of the proposed class, they met the commonality and typicality requirements for certification, and had no interests adverse to the rest of the class, the motion for certification said.

"Proposed class members are all subject to the same delays as they all continue to wait for their oath ceremonies to be scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also face ... the possibility of not being eligible to vote in the 2020 national election, losing the right to petition for family members, or being barred from applying for critical public benefits during the pandemic," the motion said. "And critically, each class member's situation can be resolved through the same remedy: expedited judicial oath ceremonies or immediate administrative naturalizations that will ensure they become U.S. citizens in the near future."

Representatives of USCIS declined to comment Thursday.

"Many of the proposed class members have waited years for U.S. citizenship and were on the brink of obtaining it before the pandemic hit," said Trina Realmuto of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, one of the attorneys for the proposed class. "We hope that our lawsuit will prompt USCIS to prioritize administering the oath of allegiance so they can finally complete the process and become citizens."

Campbell Davis, Alaussos and the proposed class are represented by Jonathan H. Feinberg of Kairys Rudovsky Messing Feinberg & Lin LLP; Trina Realmuto and Mary Kenney of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance; Matt Adams and Aaron Korthuis of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and Stacy Tolchin of the Law Offices of Stacy Tolchin.

Counsel information for USCIS was not immediately available.

The case is Campbell Davis et al. v. USCIS, case number 2:20-cv-02770, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misnamed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The error has been corrected.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Campbell Davis et al v. U.S. CITIZENSHIP & IMMIGRATION SERVICE et al


Case Number

2:20-cv-02770

Court

Pennsylvania Eastern

Nature of Suit

Other Statutes: Administrative Procedures Act/Review or Appeal of Agency Decision

Judge

BERLE M. SCHILLER

Date Filed

June 10, 2020

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